Monday, November 27, 2017


Russia is known for several types of its folk art. Probably one of the most widely known pieces are Russian nesting dolls (my husband said he knew these as Russian cup dolls), otherwise called Matryoshka dolls. Each doll fits into the next larger doll, and there are typically six or more, although many sets I’ve seen only include 4-5 dolls. For the most part, the dolls are painted like peasant girls, but sometimes it can be fairy tale characters or national/political leaders (what a way to ruin a kid’s toy). 

Other handicrafts include Dymkovo toy (painted clay figurines of animals and people), gzhel pottery (a type of pottery noted for its white or cream background and blue glazed painting/decoration), Khokhloma (a type of painting using a black background with floral decorations, typically in red and gold but sometimes with added green), Zhostovo painting (painting floral or natural scenes on metal serving trays), palekh (a type of lacquered papier-mâché), pysanka (elaborately painted Easter eggs, of a Ukrainian origin), and Filimonovo toys (small, brightly painted clay figures).
As far as painting goes, early Russian artists were known for their icon paintings of religious figures and Biblical characters. There were actually pretty strict guidelines in how to paint this, and Andrei Rublev was one of the more well known painters of this time. By the 17th century, there was a split in whether to paint them more realistic or not, based on the growing trend of Western European realism spreading throughout Europe. 

famous painting of composer Modest Mussorgsky, painted by Ilya Repin
In 1757, the Russian Academy of the Arts opened its doors, and Russian artists were learning many of the styles and techniques that were making waves in the rest of Europe. Many artists made their living during the 18th and 19th century by painting portraits. Realism rose to prominence during the 19th century; artists painted landscapes and other scenes of daily life, although many artists just started creating their own styles in the 20thcentury, including avant-garde.
by avant-garde painter Natalia Goncharova
Most of the literature produced by Russians is written in Russian, although there is a significant number of works written in Tatar and Ukrainian as well. Russian is one of the six official languages used by the UN, and about a quarter of scientific literature is written in Russian. It’s also the second-most used language on the web, next to English.

Folklore has long been a staple source of stories in Russia. Throughout the centuries, there have been many interpretations of Russian fairy tales. Initially, Stalin was going to throw out fairy tales as being useless to his evil diabolical plans, but Maxim Gorky convinced him they could use fairy tales to their advantage to push their Communist agenda. So, many of these fairy tales that the people knew so well were modified as Soviet fairy tales now. (Great, now fairy tales, too?)

Now, we come to my favorite part: 19th- and 20th-century Russian literature. I’ve been a fan of this period of Russian literature of many years. I discovered it in college. Each author is different, many of it is philosophical and centered around the complexity of human emotions. That’s why I like it, I suppose. And this period not only included novels, but there were many short stories, poems, and plays as well.

scene from the play Uncle Vanya (Chekhov)
Here are a few of my favorites, and I’d recommend any of these: Anton Chekhov (The Seagull; Uncle Vanya; Three Sisters; The Cherry Orchard), Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace; Anna Karenina; The Death of Ivan Ilyich), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment; The Idiot; The Brothers Karamazov; Notes from Underground), Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago), and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich).
There were three Russian authors (when it was the Soviet Union) who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature: Boris Pasternak (1958 – he was famous for his refusal of the prize under pressure from the Soviet government), Mikhail Sholokhov (1965), and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1970).

A few famous authors who I haven’t read much yet include Ivan Turgenev (Fathers and Sons), Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), Alexander Pushkin (Boris Godunov; Eugene Onegin), Mikhail Sholokhov (And Quiet Flows the Don), and Nikolai Gogol (Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka; Taras Bulba; Marriage, several short stories).

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, November 12, 2017


You can’t go anywhere without hearing about Russia in the news these days. And, well, they’ve pretty much been in our news and forethoughts quite a bit over the last 100-150 years, give or take. It’s like we have a frenemy relationship with them. If our countries had Facebook pages, our relationship status would be “It’s complicated.” However, I’ve been a huge fan of Russian literature and Russian classical music for a long time and have played around with learning Russian on Duolingo but have forgotten almost all of the Cyrillic I taught myself.
Russia is named after the medieval Slavic state, Rus. There were actually other states denoting the same name. The Kievan Rus, which was one of the largest of these, were made of these medieval Rus tribes along with Swedish warriors and merchants who relocated to the area. Most other languages base their word for Russia on the root “Rus” although there are a few outliers (Finnish, Estonian – you have some explaining to do). 

As the largest country by area, Russian is one of the few countries that span two continents (Europe and Asia) and 11 time zones. Its European neighbors include Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, and Ukraine. It also includes the exclave Kaliningrad situated between Lithuania and Poland. Its neighbors in Asia include Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, North Korea, and a maritime border with Japan and the US. Russia also touches a number of bodies of water: Baltic Sea, Black Sea, Caspian Sea, Sea of Japan, Sea of Okhotsk, Bearing Sea, East Siberian Sea, Kara Sea, and Barents Sea. Lake Baikal in Siberia is the deepest lake in the world. Although most of the country is known for its harsh winters, parts of its southern reaches can stay quite mild during the winters (which is why I thought Sochi was a weird decision for a Winter Olympics).

Although the Greeks and Romans visited the area since the 8th century BC, the Rus and other Slavic tribes started moving into this area around the 7th century. By the 10th century, the Kievian Rus were one of the most flourishing tribal states throughout Europe. It was around this time when they adopted Orthodox Christianity from the Byzantines. Unfortunately, they fell to the Mongols who were moving onto their turf. The Grand Duchy of Moscow emerged in its place but were still dealing with attacks from the Mongols and Tatars. In 1547, Ivan the Terrible was crowned as the first Tsar (“Caesar”). He was the one responsible for really expanding Russia’s territory. The Romanov Dynasty began in 1613. This was a time of continued uprisings and conflicts; the Cossacks, a semi-military self-governing group, rose to prominence and later aligned themselves with the Tsardom, helping the Russians explore Siberia. By the time Peter the Great (namesake of St. Petersburg) was in power, Russia was seen as a world power. Catherine the Great and Alexander I both greatly expanded Russia’s territories, and in 1820, Russian explorers first landed in Antarctica. Nicholas II, the last tsar, was made famous because his entire family was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918 (the basis of the 1997 movie Anastasia). Russia entered WWI on the side of Serbia. Afterwards, it became a communist state at the influence of Vladimir Lenin. When Josef Stalin took over, he basically killed everyone who didn’t think like him and enacted an extreme form of state atheism. Although Russia tried to befriend Germany during the early part of WWII, Germany still invaded Russia and then it was on. Nikita Khrushchev tried to undo what Stalin put into place and encouraged the Russian Space Program, finally launching the Sputnik I in 1957. Mikhail Gorbachev tried to build on that, but high inflation left the economy in a rough place. In 1991, Russia broke up with itself, and 15 separate states were created. Boris Yeltsin was the first president voted in. The 1990s generally saw a period of corruption, economic instability, and lawlessness. Violent crime and criminal gangs were on the rise. Vladimir Putin became president in 2000 (although he switched positions with Dmitri Medvedev and became the PM in 2008, but then switched back in 2012). In 2014, Putin invaded Crimea and annexed it for Russia. 

Moscow is the largest city and capital of Russia. Located on the European side of the country, it has over 17 million people in its urban area. It has Ostankino Tower (the tallest skyscraper in Europe), and it’s also famous for sites such as the Kremlin (where the seat of government meets), the Red Square, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, and Gorky Park. Today, Moscow is a modern city with many museum, theatres, galleries, sports venues, world-class restaurants and entertainment, a center for commerce, and universities.

Russia has an upper-middle income mixed economy. They’re one of the most expensive countries to visit. And while things have become more stable over the past 15 years or so as far as unemployment rates and the average nominal salary, the middle class is slowly diminishing, feeling the effects of income inequality. Agriculturally, they are a huge producer of grains, meat, fish, and forest products. Science, technology, and space programs are also very much economic drivers in Russia.

Orthodox Christianity has been around Russia since about the 10th century. However, many people in Slavic countries have double beliefs in Orthodox Christianity and one of the indigenous beliefs. During the communist years, a Marxist-Leninist form of forced atheism dominated. There is still a significant number of atheists in Russia (including those who adhere to a spiritualism but not necessarily religious). There are also smaller number of other Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and other religions in Russia.

There are actually about 100 languages spoken in Russia, with Russian being the most widely-spoken and the official language. Tatar and Ukrainian come in second and third. Russian is the second-most used language on the Internet (hi, hackers!), after English. It also serves as an official language on the International Space Station. There are also 35 other languages that are official languages in various regions of the country.

Siberia has always been a fascination for me. It’s so desolate. It’s always been the epitome of harshness. “I will dump you off in Siberia and leave you there.” “It feels like Siberia in this office.” (That second one could go both ways.) And there are some weird things out there. First of all, the people are so super healthy, they go swimming in bikinis and stuff down ice-fishing holes. I guess somehow they’re immune to hypothermia. But, cool. Pretty much the whole area is nothing but permafrost. And with global warming thawing a lot of it out, it’s releasing a lot of previously trapped methane. And that’s no bueno. Oh, and then there’s the Dalkdykan River that runs red. Probably from the blood of their enemies. Or iron deposits or something. Not to mention that some of the oldest human remains have been found in Siberia, even though the remains were unlike any they’ve ever found.  [Cue X-Files theme.]

Up next: art and literature

Monday, November 6, 2017


Well, my birthday came and went. And so did our 13th wedding anniversary. And so did Halloween. Last weekend, we finally took a trip to Cincinnati to visit the famous international grocery store Jungle Jim’s. It was amazing! We ended up with several cheeses, a bunch of candy, ice cream, and some other random stuff I totally needed. I want to go back again, but everyone was right: you’re not getting out of there spending less than $100. 

I had this for breakfast. It goes well with coffee. Especially the middle part of the bread.
But today is for cooking Romanian food. I started out with Cozonac bread. I put 1/3 c + 1 Tbsp of flour in a bowl. Then I brought 300 mL of milk to a boil but only poured 1/3 c + 1 Tbsp of the milk into the flour, stirred and let it cool down. I proofed my yeast with a little warm water and ½ tsp of sugar. Once the flour-milk mixture cooled down, I poured the yeast mixture into it and mixed it all together, covering with a towel and let it rest for 15-20 minutes. While I was waiting on that, I melted 7 Tbsp of butter and then let it cool a little. In a separate bowl, I mixed together 4 egg yolks and ½ tsp of salt, then adding in 1 Tbsp vanilla sugar, zest from ½ a lemon, ½ sugar, ½ Tbsp of rum (I used Bacardi Limón), 1 ½ Tbsp of vegetable oil, and half of the melted butter. I mixed this pretty well, and then poured it into the flour-milk-yeast mixture. At this point I added in the rest of the lukewarm milk from earlier and stirred. I sifted in the remaining 3 2/3 c of flour into the mixture, stirring and kneading it until it comes together and starts to pull itself from the sides of the bowl. I added in the rest of the melted butter and kept stirring and kneading the dough. I covered it and let it rest for another 15-20 minutes. While I was waiting on that, I made my filling. Of the four eggs I had, I reserved 2 of the egg whites and whisked them until they started to become stiff. Then I added in a ½ c of sugar and 1 Tbsp of rum and whisked it all again. I was supposed to whisk it until it became stiff again, but that never really happened, so I folded in my ground walnuts (about ½ c) anyway, hoping it would thicken up (it did a little). I rolled my dough out until it was about a ¼” thick or thinner and until it was about 14” x 23” large. I spread the filling out on top of the dough and used a knife to cut the dough in half (from the long side, creating two squares). Beginning on the side that was cut, I rolled the bread up and creased the edges, placing it in a buttered bread pan. I did the same for the other loaf and let both sit for another 10 minutes while the oven heated up to 375ºF. I put both in the oven and baked it for 45 minutes. When they were done, I took them out and let them cool. The tops of mine got a little darker than I like, but the flavor was great. The inside was so soft. I think I’m going to take my second loaf and make a bread pudding out of it -- maybe a vanilla and cranberry one.

I loved this! I'm going to attempt this again with some slight variations.
For the main meal, I made Cordon bleu snitel, a Romanian version of schnitzel. Not to be confused with the character Schnitzel from the cartoon Chowder. This called for cutting a boneless pork tenderloin into 8 equal parts and pounding it between two pieces of plastic wrap. After I did that for each one, I seasoned it with a little bit of salt and pepper. Then I placed a piece of prosciutto and thinly sliced piece of Swiss cheese on each one. Then I rolled it up, rolled it in flour, then an egg-water mixture, then some breadcrumbs, and fried it in a hot skillet with a little vegetable oil. I turned it to brown on both sides. But even though the breadcrumbs were browned, the pork wasn’t quite cooked all the way through. Maybe my slices were a little too thick. So, I put them on a baking sheet and put them in my oven at 375 for about 20 minutes. Then they were perfect. I really liked this, and it seemed to go over well with the rest of my picky family. I could probably save time and buy those thinly cut pork cutlets next time.

These were actually a bit too small. Next time, I'm going to try baby bellas.
To go with this, I made Ciuperci la cuptor, or baked mushrooms. This is a variation of stuffed mushrooms. I used smaller white mushrooms, washed them and removed the stems. I greased a baking sheet with olive oil and laid the mushrooms out on it. Then I brushed the mushrooms in a mixture of olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic powder. I prepared the filling: I mixed together some breadcrumbs with salt, pepper, garlic powder, olive oil, a little water and placed it in each mushroom. I topped this with some Parmesan cheese and a little bit of fresh dill. I baked this at 400ºF for about 20 minutes. I put a little too much salt in the breading mix, but otherwise, I thought they were a great accompaniment to the snitel. I do realize I didn’t serve any other vegetables with this meal, which I try to do. But that’s ok. I’ll get my veggies in later.

Looks like crap, but it's not. It's actually really good. Would also go well with coffee.
And to finish everything off, I made a dessert this time: Cherry filled Cocoa Truffles. I crushed some animal crackers until it was almost a powder with a few rough pieces in it. In a separate bowl, I beat together the sugar, cocoa, and butter together. I left out the ground walnuts, but wondered later if I should’ve added them in. I warmed up some milk and poured it on the crushed animal crackers, then added in my cocoa mix and stirred everything together. Taking a spoon, I spooned out a little bit of the candy and tried to form a ball. This is when I knew things weren’t going to be easy. Then I put a maraschino cherry on it, wrapping the rest of the cocoa mix around it. It was so loose that it was almost like a thick oatmeal but with finer particles. Definitely not rolling these. I expected them to turn out more like Brazilian brigadeiros. So, I’m wondering if there were some steps missing from my recipe. I ended up plopping it on some wax paper and dousing it in powdered sugar. They looked like a small dog pooped on a plate then covered it in snow. But as they sat there, they set up more, and they tasted pretty tasty!

This was mighty tasty, if I may say so myself. And I just did.
I couldn’t help but wondering while I was whisking the egg whites together who thought this up first. I’m pretty sure it was probably some form of early punishment. “Oh, Roberto, you’ve made such a mess of things: what am I going to do with you? Sit here and whisk these egg whites nonstop until I think of something.” [10 minutes later] “Mom… Am I done yet?” “No, just keep stirring! I'm still thinking.” [3 years later] “Roberto, ok, you can get up now. What is that?” “I kept stirring like you asked. Am I really done this time?” “Yes. But give me that. I’ve got some ideas I want to try with this. But don’t go far – if this turns out well, I’m going to need you again.” And there you have it. True story.

Up next: Russia 

Saturday, November 4, 2017


Romanian music is a mix of modern music of a variety of styles and folk music. And unlike other areas and countries where folk music kind of waned during the 20th century, Romanian folk music didn’t really lose footing and still has quite a following. Several folk musicians have even risen to international fame. Because of its location, Romanian folk music draws influences from both Russian and Western traditions. 

Styles of folk music vary among the different regions. However, there are a few things that bind them all. First of all, the use of the violin is prevalent as far as instrumentation goes. Woodwinds such as pipes/flutes and taragot (related to a clarinet and saxophone) are also commonly played with the violin as well as a variety of drums. In some areas, brass instruments like the trumpet are used. String instruments like guitar, double bass, and cobza (related to a lute) are also commonly played alone and in ensembles. One of my favorite instruments, the accordion, is also sometimes used, as is the bagpipes.

One of the most well known styles of folk music is the doina. There’s a corresponding dance that goes with it. Meaning “shepherd’s lament,” it has its roots in both Romanian music and Middle Eastern music. There are several variations to it.

Folk dancing is also highly based on region. Many of the traditional folk music styles have dances that go along with them. Some of the dances commonly performed in Romania include the Arcan, Sârba, Hora, Calusari, Legényes, and Perinita. Bela Bartok was actually so enamored with Romanian folk dancing that he wrote his own Romanian Folk Dances. There’s actually a Romanian folk dance group out of Canton, Ohio, who performs many of these dances and promotes the culture. I didn’t know there was something like this just in the next state.

As far as popular music goes, I listened to several genres. They draw much of their influences by the rest of Europe and the US. When it comes to pop-techno and electronica, I listened to Tom Boxer (the album I listened to was almost like an homage to Brazil), Morandi (kind of ambient techno mixed with world beat and pop), Akcent (pop + autotune + quasi-trance), Edward Maya (pop-trance), Alexandra Stan (pop mixed with Latin influence), Inna (dance-pop + a little bit of hip-hop + Latin), and Yarabi (dance-pop).

There are a few hip-hop groups I listened to. The first was R.A.C.L.A. and the second was Parazitii. Both had a decent flow and music that had a good beat. And both had enough diversity in their songs, so that each song sounds different from the next one. I also listened to B.U.G. Mafia. They tend to mix in strings and flutes (or something like it) into their music.

I also listened to several rock bands as well: Timpuri Noi (pop-rock), Celelalte Cuvinte (kind of indie rock), Transylvania Phoenix (older folk rock), Mondial (probably more pop than rock), Holograf (indie rock), Bosquito (indie rock), Voltaj (alternative rock), VH2 (softer mainstream rock), and La Familia (ska, punk).

Up next: the food

Thursday, November 2, 2017


Art in Romania is generally divided into two categories: folk art/crafts and classical art. Around Easter time, Romanians decorate hollowed out eggs and paint them with intricate patterns. Red is a common color with other colors. Depending on the region, the patterns and designs have a secret meaning known only to the people of that region. Other places in Eastern Europe also take up this practice. Ceramics are also an art form, and each region is known for a particular style. 

Textile art is a form of functional art. It not only incorporates the dying of fabric, but it also includes other forms of weaving as well as embroidery. Romanian women use these techniques on a variety of items like tablecloths, pillow cases, wall coverings, and clothing. They also weave rugs with folk patterns that include nature scenes and designs.

Masks have links to old folk festivals and are often decorated with feathers, fabric, metallic pieces and beads, straw, and other materials. They’re mostly designed to look like animals. Although glass art has waned a bit, there’s been a growing interest in blown glass art again. (Blown glass art is awesome and should’ve never been left out in the cold like that.) Wood carving is also pretty common as well. Gates and doorways are still pretty common areas to find these elaborate carvings. The actual object is typically something functional, but many of the objects carved into it are of nature: stars, flowers, trees of life, or wolf teeth (the better to eat you, my dear). 

One popular tourist spot is the Merry Cemetery of Sapanta. It’s known for its carved and brightly painted wooden crosses that mark the graves. They’re mainly blue. It’s actually become almost like an outdoor museum and now contains more than 800 of these wooden crosses. It was created by artist Stan Ioan Patras in 1935 when he carved the first epitaph. I’m not one for being buried or for crosses, but these are certainly cool to look at. 

Painting has long been a tradition in Romania, and many of their artists followed the trends from the rest of Europe. Of course, like a moody teenager, the subject matter changed throughout the years. Some painters who have been influential in Romania’s art history include Paul Paun (surrealism, modernism), Alexandra Nechita (cubism), Marcel Janco (art nouveau, dada, art deco, cubism, post-impressionism), Ion Theodorescu-Sion (post-impressionism, divisionism, art nouveau, fauvism), János Mattis-Teutsch (art nouveau, post-impressionism, abstract art), and many others.

by Alexandra Nechita

Romanian literature is primarily written in the Romanian language. The earliest known copy of anything written in Romanian is a letter (known as Neacsu's Letter) written in 1521 (still reading your business almost 500 years later). The Eastern Orthodox Church is huge in Romania, and its influence spread pretty far in their culture and literature. Many of the first books written in Romanian are books published by the church.

During the time Romania was under control by the Ottoman Empire, Greek culture was introduced into their culture as well. The Greeks were well known for their epic poetry, and the Romanians developed their love songs in the style of a few choice Greek poets. Comedy was also utilized as a theme in poetry. Along with poetry, Ienăchiță Văcărescu created the first grammar book for Romanian during the 18th century.

from Ionesco's "The Chairs"

As talk of independence arose, so did nationalism. Literary journals and literary circles began to form, and a push toward all kinds of genres and styles of written works began to be published. After WWI, Romanian writers really started developing the novel, entering them in the Golden Age. A few writers who gained notoriety during this time include Mihail Sadoveanu, Tristan Tzara, and George Bacovia. After WWII, the literary scene still grew, even during the Communist years to an extent. Marin Preda is one novelist who is often considered one of the more important writers after WWII. Poetry and theatre were two genres that still had quite a push. Eugène Ionesco is one of the more prominent playwrights known for his contributions to the Theatre of the Absurd. I think he’s probably most known for his play called “The Chairs.”

Up next: music and dance